When people drive by Lola Atkins’s house in Columbus, they usually slow down. It would be difficult to drive without looking past the horticultural masterpiece she has created along with the expertise of Matthew Shelton, who has an extraordinary way with plants. Motorists will probably drive by even more slowly next month when the exotic, bright yellow Golden Rain Trees are in full glory. These are the Florida variety that rarely have trunks larger than an inch, but they show breathtakingly beautiful yellow cascades.
In the meantime there is a sense of exuberance throughout the landscape at 335 Williamsburg Road, not far from Baptist Memorial Hospital. The first eye-catching display is around the mailbox at the curb with a colorful variety of flowers including old-fashioned cock’s comb, vincas, dianthus and million bells. Scarlet Mandevilla vines adorn the entrance to the house. Hawthorn borders its walls. Wood ferns abound.
Across the driveway is a bed filled with white marble chips and various plants like the nearby showy trumpet plant and an extraordinary variegated privet tree. Most people do not value privet hedge, but Matthew has pruned and encouraged it until it has become a tree overhanging the flower bed. Now what was an ugly duckling had become a botanical swan.
Lola and her late husband, Troy, believed in having hard structure to give bones to the garden. The backyard has walkways and sitting areas and, most amazing, an adult-sized swing just like the ones we all enjoyed as children. Lola, an early riser, likes to begin her days outside, literally swinging. The structure also holds some large deep-toned chimes that give her great pleasure. It is a whimsical area that sports a multicolored metal peacock, his tail feathers spread in full glory.
Shading the area is a huge, 11-year old river birch, its shaggy bark a dramatic element. From that spot and looking across the garden, one can enjoy the meditative area, centered with a large Celtic cross against a background of lush banana trees from which Lola harvests little bananas. She also gets fruit from a lemon tree. The cross sits where there is a big stump as a pedestal and where a former pond that Troy hated has been filled in with large rocks. Lola hauled the rocks there in her car, 10 at a time. After the former pond had been filled with rocks, they installed a fountain. It is a peaceful view and sound.
In the other direction, north of the swing, is a large circular vegetable garden for the summer. For the winter, Matthew replaces the vegetables with a huge display of pansies. All this takes the place of a dreadfully depressing yard they had when they moved in. It had a big, ugly dog pen and a forest of bamboo. Anyone who has ever had bamboo knows it is almost impossible to kill, but Troy cut it back and poisoned it, and finally built a garden house over it. No more wildly proliferating bamboo!
Huge arborvitae trees delineate the back of the walled garden. Lola never has any pests except for an occasional possum.
“You have to have a vision,” Lola says. “I wanted neither a formal nor a cottage garden.” Instead she has a space with gates and walks. It provides a perfect spot to set up the large round tables she uses to host the many breakfasts and lunches she enjoys having. She likes to serve one of her specialties, breakfast calzones, made rich with dozens of eggs, multicheeses and ham, sausage or bacon.
She recently hosted the choir of her church, First United Methodist. Peggy Cantelou read a poem, and the choir sang a favorite old hymn, “In the Garden,” accompanied by James Allen on Lola’s 100-year old piano.
The garden does not stop at the exterior. Lola has a solarium with three glass walls where she frequently entertains bridge groups. Some huge house plants are there year-round, but Matthew moves more than 20 inside in the autumn. Something is always flowering there. One plant has been blooming continuously for three straight years.
And, yes, Lola has given her plants names, some for family members, some for characters in TV dramas, especially “Downton Abbey.” She usually keeps them straight by knowing where they are placed, but she said Matthew likes to move things around; so some have gotten out of place.
Matthew fertilizes the grass and pansies outside, but nothing else, never any of the lush plants in the solarium. The plants cause each other to thrive. Lola says, “The more plants you have, the better they do.”
Obviously, she knows.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.
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